14/10/2010 - 00:00

Pressure on over population push

14/10/2010 - 00:00

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Post-election indications that Julia Gillard is prepared to look at population needs on a state-by-state basis are good news for WA, where skilled workers are needed.

THE Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, gave Western Australian business leaders an attack of the jitters when she announced during the election campaign that a re-elected Labor government would be applying the brakes to the concept of a ‘big Australia’.

It was seen as a not-too-subtle ploy to save votes in traditional Labor seats in the two most populous cities, Sydney and Melbourne.

Essentially, urban planning has failed to keep up with population growth there, and Labor feared voters would take it out on the party come polling day.

Anxiety was accentuated by former PM Kevin Rudd’s earlier enthusiastic embrace of a Treasury prediction that Australia, with a current population of about 22 million, was heading for 36 million by 2050.

Except for staunch conservationists, the prediction barely caused a ripple in WA. This was partly because the Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA had been running its own population growth agenda, which made the Treasury prediction look extremely modest. But the chamber’s awareness was raised in the May federal budget when the migration program was frozen at about 170,000 for this financial year.

“CCI’s research shows that WA will need an extra 400,000 workers over the next seven years,” the chamber’s chief economist, John Nicolaou, said.

“Based on current population trends, and without an increase in migration, we will fall 150,000 short.”

This did seem an extraordinarily bold prediction. Admittedly there are projects on the drawing board in the resources sector alone valued at $170 billion. But even the most optimistic would be surprised if they all got off the ground.

But the bottom line is that WA will need thousands more workers – skilled workers – over the next 15 years, to fill the jobs created by the continued expansion. And the last thing the relevant industries want is skills shortages; even worse if the shortages are the result of a restrictive immigration policy.

The latest job figures tell the story of how important new workers are to the state’s economy.

Fuelled by the growing demand in Asia for iron ore and liquefied natural gas, 36,000 new jobs have been created in WA this year. That’s an increase of 3 per cent, the biggest for any state. Jobs in Queensland grew by a healthy 2.2 per cent, the same as for NSW.

National growth came in at 1.8 per cent, which means 209,000 new jobs since January.

These new jobs are being created at the same time as a surge of older workers is leaving the labour market. They are the post WWII baby boomers, who are now approaching their mid 60s and are, in most cases, opting for a quieter life.

There is a range of incentives for them to stay on. But even if these carrots prove partly successful, the exodus will continue over the next five years.

Both state Labor leader Eric Ripper and Premier Colin Barnett have expressed concern at the impact of a smaller Australia policy on WA’s potential growth.

“On migration policy,” Mr Ripper told a Committee for Economic Development of Australia lunch in July, “WA has different needs to the rest of the nation. We traditionally have a higher proportion of migrants, and our growth projections must not be set by the needs of western Sydney.”

Mr Ripper noted there could be a case for increased interstate migration, where WA’s needs could be met without adding to overall numbers.

Mr Barnett believes a continued strong migration program goes hand in glove with future development.

“Australia’s success has been largely built on people who have come to this country,” he said. “We are a land of immigrants, and population growth through immigration has been one of the greatest economic and social driving forces in this nation. So I would hope that we could maintain a high, consistently high, immigration policy.”

The premier also suggests that genuine refugee and asylum seekers be given increased status in the migration policy, reviving an old plan in which they might be required to work in regional Australia, to help ease local labour shortages.

“There is no doubt that in parts of this country, and in particular parts of WA, there is demand for labour of all sorts, and even lesser skilled labour to provide catering and accommodation services in mining camps, and also in the tourism industry,” he said.

In her post-election comments, Ms Gillard has indicated a willingness to accommodate the differing needs of each state in population projections.

And the appointment of experienced WA Labor Senator Chris Evans as minister for skills, jobs and workplace relations, gives local industry a sounding board with a good understanding of future workforce needs, and the downside of possible skills shortages.

If that was the prime minister’s intention, Senator Evans could prove to be a judicious appointment.

New blood

A STATE Labor MP has taken me to task over my report last week about the victory of lawyer, Tony Buti, in the Armadale by election to replace Alannah MacTiernan.

The report said that Mr Buti would add, “much needed new blood to Labor’s ranks”.

And Mr Buti is a “doer”. Among other things he’s written a biography of the late High Court judge, Sir Ronald Wilson, and acted as manager for AFL players such as Roger Hayden and Scott Chisholm.

But no sooner had the edition of WA Business News hit my desk than I received an SMS from the MP putting a Labor response to the ‘new blood’ comment.

“New Labor blood in by-elections since 2006 Wyatt, Papalia, Tinley and now Buti. Conversely Liberals: Porter. It was more new blood – but the ‘much needed’ label relates to the government benches, not our side!!!”

I responded, also with an SMS: “Looks promising but numbers thin.” The reply: “As opposed to the massive depth of talent opposite???” My final response was simply: “Numbers.”

The Labor MP has a point, but also ignores a swag of new Liberal MPs who came in at the 2008 election. Obviously voters preferred them to the Labor candidates.

The same MP also took me to task when I said on morning radio late last year that renewed corridor speculation at Parliament House was that former premier Alan Carpenter was about to quit politics. The MP phoned to ask had I checked with Mr Carpenter before commenting. When I said no, his response was that I had been irresponsible.

Within hours Mr Carpenter had forwarded his resignation to the speaker. A short time later the MP was again on the phone, this time offering his apologies. He said he honestly thought the former premier would be there for “the long haul.

• Peter Kennedy is ABC TV's state political reporter.

 

 

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